Legions of thrills (no spills)


Words and pictures by Johan Rautenbach.

Reader report: Lauberville dune experience, Namibia. In April ’06, I received a call about a spot that had opened up on a Westcoast4x4 tour to Saddle Hill, north of Lüderitz. Someone had cancelled, and his place was being offered to me. I had just three hours to decide. After a few frantic phone calls, I found my co-driver, and off we went.

What a thrill the desert was! Amazing scenery, nice people and big dunes. Midway through the trip we spent a lot of time at one particularly challenging dune, which was too high for some vehicles to summit. I was driving a Hilux 2.7i, and just managed to make the top. This dune gave me a real adrenalin rush, and I was hooked on sand. Eventually I found a way to drive the vehicle to the limit without damaging it. During September of the same year, I organised my own trip with Westcoast4x4 to Saddle Hill, bringing a very nice crowd from all over the Western Cape. While I could see that everybody was enjoying the trip as much as I’d enjoyed the previous one, it didn’t give me the same thrill as the first one had.

But I couldn’t stay away from the Namib Desert, and did a few Faces of the Namib tours with Westcoast4x4 (travelling from Solitaire to the west coast through the desert) and a Living on the Edge tour – very similar to Faces of the Namib, except that halfway through this tour you end up at the Lauberville campsite where you sleep over for three nights. This is a beautiful venue located in the Kuiseb riverbed, about 35 kilometres southeast of Walvis Bay; it boasts bungalows, beds with good mattresses, a well-equipped mess, a swimming pool, electricity, clean water, ice, flushing toilets, hot showers, a huge fireplace, a trained cook, and much more. The big advantage of Lauberville for me was that I could unload all the equipment and luggage from my vehicle. Up until recently I’d never owned a powerful 4×4 (my best had been a Hilux 2.7 VVTi), so for the first time I could enjoy driving an empty vehicle; one capable of going almost everywhere the 6-cylinder petrol Cruisers could go. Lauberville was originally started a few decades ago by a General Laubscher of the SA Police in Namibia, as a training camp for officers. Don Nieuwoudt of Westcoast4x4 was introduced to Lauberville during 2008, a time when the camp was neglected and in a very poor state.

He saw the potential of the place and immediately started to renovate the camp in its entirety. Don ran the place for three years and then gave it to the Women’s Council of the Topnaars to run it for their own account. Westcoast4x4 assist them in running the place and do all bookings at their office in Walvis Bay.

The Topnaars are the indigenous people who live in this area. They keep goats in the Kuiseb riverbed and also collect the fruit of the Nara plants. Kandara, one of the Topnaars working at the campsite, told me that they dry the pips of the Nara fruit – which allegedly have the same effect as blue ‘smarties’. The other advantage of Lauberville is that there’s cell-phone reception at the campsite, so businessmen can contact their salt mines easily. There’s also cell-phone reception on some of the higher dunes.

The Kuiseb River is the border between the desert to the south and the gravel moonscape to the north. This is the reason why Toyota SA has chosen Lauberville for their midyear testing and development of the Dakar Hiluxes – they can do rally and dune testing while enjoying the comforts of the camp nearby. I met Don Nieuwoudt of Westcoast4x4 during 2004 when he still had the concession at the Elands Bay dunes south of Lamberts Bay, and I remembered him as a man with an outstanding ability to make up competitions and sniff out interesting dunes. He knows how to match vehicles to dunes in order to give all the vehicles in the group a nice challenge. My perception has always been that nobody leaves an event unfulfilled when Don is involved. His other outstanding ability is that he can build up the confidence of inexperienced 4×4 drivers within three days of desert driving, so that they are capable of driving those really big dunes by the end of a tour.

Our Lauberville Big Dune Driving tour began on the Sunday afternoon. We met up at Dune 7 Adventures restaurant, close to the Walvis Bay Airport. After a hamburger and a cold one, the group drove to Lauberville, twenty odd kilometres south of Dune 7. At the campsite, Don decided who got what accommodation (married couples normally get the “honeymoon suites”), and we all unpacked our vehicles, deflated the tyres and headed straight for a challenge dune not far from the camp.

This was great fun, and everybody got an idea about what was to follow for the rest of the week. The dune we started on was completely safe, with no slip faces or other surprises. You learn very quickly to use brute power to get to the top. We enjoyed sundowners at the top of that dune and then drove back to the camp in the gathering dusk. The beauty of the landscape at that time of the early evening was soul-soothing. The desert is at its most beautiful in the late afternoon, when the contrast of sand and shade offers great opportunities to photographers.

When we got back to the camp, we fetched wood from the riverbed to be used in the big open fireplace at the campsite. Then the party really started. All the chairs were packed round the fireplace, and that was the time when strangers become friends. The smell of this wood fire became a familiar part of the routine in the days that followed.

On the Monday morning, Don took us on a trip through the dunes to build up confidence. He begins with a level of difficulty suitable for the group’s experience, and lots of advice was given to us over the 2-way radios at the beginning of the tour. To me, the biggest thrill was to see how people changed – from fearful drivers to dune lovers – within a few dunes. On the Tuesday morning, we set off to visit the aeroplane wreck south-west of the camp, but took a long route to get there. On the way we drove over very big dunes, including a few great challenge dunes. On this day we learnt how to drive off camber – to drive the length, or the side of a dune. The vehicle tends to fall out of the tracks if you drive too slowly; Don taught us that to get back up into the tracks you have to drive slightly downhill while picking up speed and then steer back uphill into the tracks again. All without panicking or doing anything dramatic. Everything becomes so easy once you have the knowledge.

In the afternoon we went to play in a few big dunes. Don would go through a dune street into the dune belt. He would then take us over the dune belt to the west and come back up the other side to the east. This was technical dune driving at its best! I couldn’t believe the beauty between the dunes in the dune belts. There were sand passes between the dunes that turn left and right within a short distance. There were giant steps we had to climb to get to the top. Then we had to accelerate quickly while driving off-camber again close to the dune’s crest. Next thing there was a big ‘swimming pool’ right at the top of a huge dune and we had to slam on brakes, drive slowly into the ‘swimming pool’ and then accelerate hard to get out at the other side. Then we went right down into the dune street again, just to go up the same dune belt a few hundred metres further. And the whole exercise repeated itself several times, every time with different scenery.

We drove like this for more than an hour and nobody got stuck. This was when the devil started having a serious conversation with me. How can a man like Don do such a fantastic job every day, and still get paid for it? It’s not fair. But then again, I don’t think there are many people who can read dunes like Don does. It’s one thing to follow a track knowing that someone has just gone through that ditch or over that dune already, but it’s a totally different ball-game driving at the front. You have to make big decisions within split seconds while giving advice over the radio to the drivers following you. After the technical driving on the Tuesday, everybody’s confidence was on the up. Don was taking us to Sandwich Harbour the next day, quite a long drive to the south. After we’d had a good breakfast in the camp, each crew packed a light meal and fruit juices for their lunch at Sandwich Harbour before we departed – on one of the most beautiful day trips. We drove through dune streets, over dune belts and on the beach, as it was low tide.

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